Friday, June 15, 2012

Review of The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

My rating: 4/5

This book reminded me a lot of the Lord of The Flies, in that the microcosm of youth is used as a model in which to explore power dynamics and group relations.

Jerry Renault is a high school freshman who is mandated by a secret mafia-like seniors club the Vigils to refuse to participate in a chocolate sale. At first a pawn of the Vigils, he becomes an embarrassment after the Vigils rally to the chocolate sale yet Jerry, in an existential act, decides to brave the collective ire and persists in refusing to sell the chocolates.

The tension is palpable, drawn with precision and rhythm. Dialogues are pivotal in showing how pressure is applied and status maintained in this closed system of a religious school in which Christian virtue is a founding value but is never evoked. The absence of any tangible female character only compounds the prison ambiance: there is light at the end of the tunnel because high school cannot last forever, but the brothers taint this light by showing that even as adults, the world continues to function with pressure and domination.
Jerry becomes a focal point for the frustration and cruelty of the student body. Progressively, he comes to embody both the scapegoat and a proxy for the figure of Christ, as symbolized by the football goal posts in the form of a cross. As such, his refusal to sell the chocolates, to participate in the economics of the system, is a punishable retreat from the material world into the spiritual world of existential affirmation, seen both on the “Do I dare disturb the Universe?” poster in his locker and also the “do your own thing” motto.

I was enthralled by this book. The only real negative point I’d make about it is that, having read it, the ending seems to be proposed by the author as the sole one possible, that the forces in place in this universe are implacable. As such, and probably because I don’t agree with the conclusion, I would have preferred a more open ending.

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